WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Bill Brooks has been dead for more than a decade, but his legacy lives on thanks to one of WPTV's signature community events.
The former longtime general manager of WPTV is the namesake of the station's annual Food for Families campaign, now in its 37th year.
During a conversation Thursday on WPTV's Facebook page, veteran anchor Kelley Dunn and programming director Bernadette O'Grady discussed the origin of the food drive, the man who started it all, how it's been able to endure through the decades -- even when the coronavirus pandemic threatened its existence -- and what loyal viewers can expect in 2021.
The birth of Bill Brooks' Food for Families came in 1985 after the release of a popular song, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" The song was recorded by Band Aid, a charity supergroup featuring such artists as U2's Bono, Phil Collins and Boy George, in an effort to raise money toward anti-famine efforts in Ethiopa, which, at the time, was in the midst of a nationwide starvation crisis that resulted in the deaths of more than a million people.
O'Grady, whose tenure at WPTV predates the first Food for Families, said she suggested to Brooks that the station do something to help.
"And he said, 'Well, you know, Bernadette, there's, like, hundreds of families here in our community that probably need it as much as in Africa. We should be doing something to help the local people,'" O'Grady recalled of her conversation with Brooks.
WPTV did just that, coming together -- with the help of some prominent area businesses -- to launch the inaugural Food for Families in a matter of just weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.
The first iteration of Food for Families set up shop at a vacant storefront at the old Cross County Mall, where volunteers collected and sorted donated food for local charities to distribute. Volunteers weighed the food coming in and going out.
"That was a very labor-intensive way of doing it," O'Grady said. "We don't quite do it that way anymore."
Pratt & Whitney and IBM also played a role. IBM donated the boxes that were used to pack up all the food, while the engineers at Pratt & Whitney calculated the exact weight of the food minus the cans and boxes.
"The first time you do something like this, you had no idea what it was," O'Grady said. "And so we were just flying by the seat of our pants."
To help spread the word, WPTV held an array of food collection events, including a night at the old Palm Beach Jai-Alai, a night at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and two nights at the former West Palm Beach Auditorium (affectionately known as the "leaky teepee"), including a Neil Sedaka concert.
"We were just thinking of all kinds of different ways to get out and get the message out, because we really didn't have a lot of lead-up time for it," O'Grady said.
Last year's Food for Families was forced to pivot to an all-virtual event in the wake of the pandemic, but in-person food collection returns in 2021.
WPTV will be at Seacoast Bank locations in Stuart on Nov. 5, Boynton Beach on Nov. 12 and Wellington on Nov. 19, collecting donations from the community.
"If you can't get there all those three days, any Seacoast branch is a drop off for Food for Families," O'Grady said. "So if you're going by a Seacoast or there's one in your neighborhood, anytime that the bank -- that the lobby hours are open -- you can make a donation to Food for Families."
Much has changed in 37 years, but the objective -- feeding hungry families in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast -- remains the same.
Before serving as general manager at WPTV from 1981-98, Brooks was a Catholic priest who served the Diocese of Palm Beach. Although he died in 2010 after a battle with cancer, Brooks' commitment to serving others dating back to his time in the priesthood lives on today at WPTV.
"I think his whole thought would be he's so proud to see that this is going on," O'Grady said. "Maybe not proud that we still have a need for it, but proud that we're still, you know, an instrument and place for us to be able to do food-raising and to be able to touch the community in such an impactful way."